Why you should care
Because NYC rapper Le1f’s new EP, Hey, is just more proof that his serious skill goes far beyond his reputation as “the gay rapper.”
If you’ve never heard of Le1f, you’ve probably seen his viral music video for Wut, which features the openly queer, purple-haired rapper straddling a buff, oiled-up guy wearing a Pikachu mask. Or maybe you’ve read his tweets blasting Macklemore for being a “straight white dude” capitalizing on the marriage equality movement.
And so it happened that Le1f became known as “the gay rapper.”
My goal is always to make songs that a gay dude or a straight dude can listen to and just think, ’This dude has swag.’
Which is a shame, because Le1f’s talent goes far beyond his reputation. He’s not just an anomaly in an often homophobic genre. The guy has serious flow, spitting complex rhymes laden with witty wordplay and, yes, anime references, over extraterrestrial, booty-popping beats. Last month, the NYC rapper dropped Hey, his first EP for major indie label Terrible Records and is currently working on his first LP.
“I am gay, and I’m proud to be called a gay rapper, but it’s not gay rap . That’s not a genre,” Le1f told Fader. “My goal is always to make songs that a gay dude or a straight dude can listen to and just think, ‘This dude has swag.’”
Born Khalif Diouf in Manhattan to a Senegalese father and Gullah-Cherokee mother, Le1f (pronounced “leaf,” short for “Khalif”) grew up immersed in the arts. His parents enrolled him in ballet classes when he was four, and he created his first mixtape on a Fisher Price recorder. He fell hard for hip-hop, thanks to his older cousins who introduced him to artists like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Da Brat.
How many other MCs can seamlessly juxtapose identity politics with Pokémon references?
He began producing beats in high school, penning rhymes for a handful and recording them. Despite attracting attention from a few small labels, he decided to study dance at Wesleyan University first to give himself more time to refine his craft. “I had a fear of failing as a rapper,” he said. “But I’ve realized more and more that I wasn’t lacking in talent, just confidence.”
Le1f continued producing, sometimes rapping over house and juke tracks. Still wanting to create hip-hop songs, he recorded three in 2010. Lying in bed with the flu, he rasped his verses into a computer mic over Garage Band beats. To his surprise, the New York underground scene loved his new sound. His confidence boosted, Le1f released his mixtape, the 21-track Dark York, in April 2012, followed by his first EP, Liquid , and two more mixtapes.
Hey is catchier and more accessible than Le1f’s earlier work, asserting his identity — and talent — to a wider audience. He’s frank about his sexuality, usually in verses about sexual experience (fantasies and all). He never sounds preachy or overtly political — just real . Like when he brags about his sexual prowess on the dance-y stoner anthem Boom: “I made him scream my name three times, Bloody Mary / I made him scream my name three times, Beetle Juice. ”
Above all, Hey showcases Le1f’s skill, silencing critics quick to dismiss him as a gimmick. Try not to let your jaw drop over his scorching delivery of the tongue-twisting second verse on Wut. And, really, how many other MCs can seamlessly juxtapose identity politics with Pokémon references? (“Fire type, I flame throw, and it’s over …I’m a Charmander, a banjee commander / Ask a gay question, here’s a black answer.”)
Hey is proof that idealism wrapped in sexy club beats can still pack a punch. So get freaky and smart, and get into Le1f.